The Strange Case

by Edgar Wallace

IN the days of Mr. Reeder's youth, which were also the days when hansom

cabs plied for hire and no gentleman went abroad without a nosegay in

the lapel of his coat, he had been sent, in company with another young

officer from Scotland Yard, to arrest a youthful inventor of Nottingham

who earned more than a competence by methods which were displeasing to

Scotland Yard. Not machines nor ingenious contrivances for saving labour

did this young man invent--but stories. And they were not stories in the

accepted sense of the word, for they were misstatements designed to

extract money from the pockets of simple-minded men and women. Mr. Eiter

employed no fewer than twenty-five aliases and as many addresses in the

broadcasting of his fiction, and he was on the way to amassing a

considerable fortune when a square-toed Nemesis took him by the arm and

led him to the seat of justice. An unsympathetic judge sent Mr. Eiter to

seven years' penal servitude, describing him as an unconscionable

swindler and a menace to society--at which Willie Eiter smiled, for he

had a skin beside which the elephant's was gossamer silk.

 

Mr. Reeder remembered the case chiefly because the prosecuting attorney,

commenting upon the various disguises and subterfuges which the prisoner

had adopted, remarked upon a peculiarity which was revealed in every

part which the convict had played--his inability to spell 'able' which he

invariably wrote as though he were naming the victim of Cain's envy.

 

'There is this identity to be discovered in every criminal, however

ingenious he may be,' the advocate had said. 'Whatever his disguise, no

matter how cleverly he dissociates one role or pose from another, there

is a distinguishable weakness common to every character he affects, and

especially is this observable in criminals who live by fraud and

trickery.'

 

This Mr. Reeder remembered throughout his useful life. Few people knew

that he had ever been associated with Scotland Yard. He himself evaded

any question that was put to him on the subject. It was his amiable

trait to pretend that he was the veriest amateur and that his success in

the detection of wrongdoing was to be traced to his own evil mind that

saw wrong very often where no wrong was.

 

He saw wrong in so many apparently innocent acts of man that it was well

for his reputation that those who were acquainted with and pitied him

because of his seeming inadequacy and unattractive appearance did not

know what dark thoughts filled his mind.

 

There was a very pretty girl who lived in Brockley Road at a

boarding-house. He did not like Miss Margaret Belman because she was

pretty, but because she was sensible: two terms which are as a rule

antagonistic. He liked her so well that he often travelled home on the

cars with her, and they used to discuss the Prince of Wales, the Labour

Government, the high cost of living, and other tender subjects with

great animation. It was from Miss Belman that he learned about her

fellow-boarder, Mrs. Carlin, and once he travelled back with her to

Brockley--a frail, slim girl with experience in her face and the hint of

tragedy in her fine eyes.

 

So it happened that he knew all about Mr. Harry Carlin long before Lord

Sellington sent for him, for Mr. Reeder had the gift of evoking

confidences by the suggestion rather than the expression of his

sympathy.

 

She spoke of her husband without bitterness--but also without regret. She

knew him--rather well, despite the shortness of their married life. She

hinted once, and inadvertently, that there was a rich relation to whose

wealth her husband would be heir if he were a normal man. Her son would,

in due course, be the possessor of a great title--and penniless. She was

at such pains to rectify her statement that Mr. Reeder, suspicious of

peerages that come to Brockley, was assured of her sincerity, however

great might be her error. Later he learned that the title was that borne

by the Right Honourable the Earl of Sellington and Manford.

 

There came a slack time for the Public Prosecutor's office, when it

seemed that sin had gone out of the world; and Mr. Reeder sat for a week

on end in his little room, twiddling his thumbs or reading the

advertisement columns of The Times, or drawing grotesque men upon his

blotting-pad, varying these performances with the excursions he was in

the habit of making to those parts of London which very few people

choose for their recreation. He loved to poke about the slum areas which

lie in the neighbourhood of the Great Surrey Docks; he was not averse

from frequenting the north side of the river, again in the dock areas;

but when his chief asked him whether he spent much time at Limehouse,

Mr. Reeder replied with a pathetic smile.

 

'No, sir,' he said gently, 'I read about such places--I find them

infinitely more interesting in the pages of a--er--novel. Yes, there are

Chinese there, and I suppose Chinese are romantic, but even they do not

add romance to Limehouse, which is the most respectable and law-abiding

corner of the East End.'

 

One morning the Public Prosecutor sent for his chief detective, and Mr.

Reeder obeyed the summons with a light step and a pleasant sense of

anticipation.

 

'Go over to the Foreign Office and have a talk with Lord Sellington,'

said the Prosecutor. 'He is rather worried about a nephew of his. Harry

Carlin. Do you know the name?'

 

Mr. Reeder shook his head; for the moment he did not associate the pale

girl who typed for her living.

 

'He's a pretty bad lot,' explained the Prosecutor, 'and unfortunately

he's Sellington's heir. I rather imagine the old gentleman wants you to

confirm his view.'

 

'Dear me!' said Mr. Reeder, and stole forth.

 

Lord Sellington, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, was a

bachelor and an immensely rich man. He had been rich in 1912 when, in a

panic due to certain legislation which he thought would affect him

adversely as a great landowner, he sold his estates and invested the

larger bulk of his fortune (against all expert advice) in American

industrial stocks. The war had trebled his possessions. Heavy

investments in oil lands had made him many times a millionaire. He was a

philanthropist, gave liberally to institutions devoted to the care of

young children; he was the founder of the Eastleigh Children's Home, and

subscribed liberally to other similar institutions. A thin, rather

sour-faced man, he glared up under his shaggy eyebrows as Mr. Reeder

sidled apologetically into his room.

 

'So you're Reeder, eh?' he grumbled, and was evidently not very much

impressed by his visitor. 'Sit down, sit down,' he said testily, walked

to the door as though he were not certain that Mr. Reeder had closed it,

and came back and flopped into his chair on the other side of the table.

'I have sent for you in preference to notifying the police,' he said.

'Sir James speaks of you, Mr. Reeder, as a gentleman of discretion.'

 

Mr. Reeder bowed slightly, and there followed a long and awkward pause,

which the Under-Secretary ended in an abrupt, irritable way.

 

'I have a nephew--Harry Carlin. Do you know him?'

 

'I know of him,' said Mr. Reeder truthfully; in his walk to the Foreign

Office he had remembered the deserted wife.

 

'Then you know nothing good of him!' exploded his lordship. 'The man is

a blackguard, a waster, a disgrace to the name he bears! If he were not

my brother's son I would have him under lock and key to-night--the

scoundrel! I have four bills in my possession--'

 

He stopped himself, pulled open a drawer savagely, took out a letter and

slammed it on the table.

 

'Read that,' he snapped.

 

Mr. Reeder pulled his glasses a little farther up his nose (he always

held them very tight when he was really using them) and perused the

message. It was headed 'The Eastleigh Home for Children,' and was a

brief request for five thousand pounds, which the writer said he would

send for that evening, and was signed 'Arthur Lassard.'

 

'You know Lassard, of course?' said his lordship. 'He is the gentleman

associated with me in my philanthropic work. Certain monies were due for

land which we purchased adjoining the home. As you probably know, there

are lawyers who never accept cheques for properties they sell on behalf

of their clients, and I had the money ready and left it with my

secretary, and one of Lassard's people was calling for it. That it was

called for, I need hardly tell you,' said his lordship grimly. 'Whoever

planned the coup planned it well. They knew I would be speaking in the

House of Lords last night; they also knew that I had recently changed my

secretary and had engaged a gentleman to whom most of my associates are

strangers. A bearded man came for the money at half-past six, produced a

note from Mr. Lassard, and that was the end of the money, except that we

have discovered that it was changed this morning into American bills. Of

course, both letters were forged: Lassard never signed either, and made

no demand whatever for the money, which was not needed for another

week.'

 

'Did anybody know about this transaction?' asked Mr. Reeder.

 

His lordship nodded slowly.

 

'My nephew knew. He came to my house two days ago to borrow money. He

has a small income from his late mother's estate, but insufficient to

support him in his reckless extravagance. He admitted frankly to me that

he had come back from Aix broke. How long he had been in London I am

unable to tell you, but he was in my library when my secretary came in

with the money which I had drawn from the bank in preparation for paying

the bill when it became due. Very foolishly I explained why I had so

much cash in the house and why I was unable to oblige him with the

thousand pounds which he wanted to borrow,' he added dourly.

 

Mr. Reeder scratched his chin.

 

'What am I to do?' he asked.

 

'I want you to find Carlin,' Lord Sellington almost snarled. 'But most I

want that money back--you understand, Reeder? You're to tell him that

unless he repays--'

 

Mr. Reeder was gazing steadily at the cornice moulding.

 

'It almost sounds as if I am being asked to compound a felony, my lord,'

he said respectfully. 'But I realise, in the peculiar circumstances, we

must adopt peculiar methods. The black-bearded gentleman who called for

the money would appear to have been'--he hesitated--'disguised?'

 

'Of course he was disguised,' said the other irritably.

 

'One reads of such things,' said Mr. Reeder with a sigh, 'but so seldom

does the bearded stranger appear in real life! Will you be good enough

to tell me your nephew's address?'

 

Lord Sellington took a card from his pocket and threw it across the

table. It fell to the floor, but he did not apologise. He was that kind

of man.

 

'Jermyn Mansions,' said Mr. Reeder as he rose. 'I will see what can be

done.'

 

Lord Sellington grunted something which might have been a tender

farewell, but probably was not.

 

Jermyn Mansions is a very small, narrow-fronted building and, as Mr.

Reeder knew--and he knew a great deal--was a block of residential flats,

which were run by an ex-butler who was also the lessee of the

establishment. By great good fortune, as he afterwards learned, Harry

Carlin was at home, and in a few minutes the man from the Public

Prosecutor's office was ushered into a shabby drawing-room that

overlooked Jermyn Street.

 

A tall young man stood by the window, looking disconsolately into that

narrow and lively thoroughfare, and turned as Mr. Reeder was announced.

Thin-faced, narrow-headed, small-eyed, if he possessed any of the family

traits and failings, the most marked was perhaps his too ready

irritation.

 

Mr. Reeder saw, through an open door, a very untidy bedroom, caught a

glimpse of a battered trunk covered with Continental labels.

 

'Well, what the devil do you want?' demanded Mr. Carlin. Yet, in spite

of his tone, there was an undercurrent of disquiet which Mr. Reeder

detected.

 

'May I sit down?' said the detective and, without waiting for an

invitation, pulled a chair from the wall and sat down gingerly, for he

knew the quality of lodging-house chairs.

 

His self-possession, the hint of authority he carried in his voice,

increased Mr. Harry Carlin's uneasiness; and when Mr. Reeder plunged

straight into the object of his visit, he saw the man go pale.

 

'It is a difficult subject to open,' said Mr. Reeder, carefully

smoothing his knees, 'and when I find myself in that predicament I

usually employ the plainest language.'

 

And plain language he employed with a vengeance. Half-way through Carlin

sat down with a gasp.

 

'What--what!' he stammered. 'Does that old brute dare--! I thought you

came about the bills--I mean--'

 

'I mean,' said Mr. Reeder carefully, 'that if you have had a little fun

with your relative, I think that jest has gone far enough. Lord

Sellington is prepared, on the money being refunded, to regard the whole

thing as an over-elaborate practical joke on your part--'

 

'But I haven't touched his beastly money!' the young man almost

screamed. 'I don't want his money--'

 

'On the contrary, sir,' said Reeder gently, 'you want it very badly. You

left the Hotel Continental without paying your bill; you owe some six

hundred pounds to various gentlemen from whom you borrowed that amount;

there is a warrant out for you in France for passing cheques which are

usually described by the vulgar as--er--"dud." Indeed'--again Mr. Reeder

scratched his chin and looked thoughtfully out of the window--'indeed I

know no gentleman in Jermyn Street who is so badly in need of money as

your good self.'

 

Carlin would have stopped him, but the middle-aged man went on

remorselessly.

 

'I have been for an hour in the Record Department of Scotland Yard,

where your name is not unknown, Mr. Carlin. You left London rather

hurriedly to avoid--er--proceedings of an unpleasant character. "Bills," I

think you said? You are known to have been the associate of people with

whom the police are a little better acquainted than they are with Mr.

Carlin. You were also associated with a race-course fraud of a

peculiarly unpleasant character. And amongst your minor delinquencies

there is--er--a deserted young wife, at present engaged in a City office

as typist, and a small boy for whom you have never provided.'

 

Carlin licked his dry lips.

 

'Is that all?' he asked, with an attempt at a sneer, though his voice

shook and his trembling hands betrayed his agitation.

 

Reeder nodded.

 

'Well, I'll tell you something. I want to do the right thing by my wife.

I admit I haven't played square with her, but I've never had the money

to play square. That old devil has always been rolling in it, curse him!

I'm the only relation he has, and what has he done? Left every bean to

these damned children's homes of his! If somebody has caught him for

five thousand I'm glad! I shouldn't have the nerve to do it myself, but

I'm glad if they did--whoever they may be. Left every penny to a lot of

squalling, sticky-faced brats, and not a bean to me!'

 

Mr. Reeder let him rave on without interruption, until at last, almost

exhausted by his effort, he dropped down into a deep chair and glared at

his visitor.

 

'Tell him that,' he said breathlessly; 'tell him that!'

 

Mr. Reeder made time to call at the little office in Portugal Street

wherein was housed the head-quarters of Lord Sellington's various

philanthropic enterprises. Mr. Arthur Lassard had evidently been in

communication with his noble patron, for no sooner did Reeder give his

name than he was ushered into the plainly furnished room where the

superintendent sat.

 

It was not unnatural that Lord Sellington should have as his assistant

in the good work so famous an organiser as Mr. Arthur Lassard. Mr.

Lassard's activities in the philanthropic world were many. A

broad-shouldered man with a jolly red face and a bald head, he had

survived all the attacks which come the way of men engaged in charitable

work, and was not particularly impressed by a recent visit he had had

from Harry Carlin.

 

'I don't wish to be unkind,' he said, 'but our friend called here on

such a lame excuse that I can't help feeling that his real object was to

secure a sheet of my stationery. I did, in fact, leave him in the room

for a few minutes, and he had the opportunity to purloin the paper if he

desired.'

 

'What was his excuse?' asked Mr. Reeder, and the other shrugged.

 

'He wanted money. At first he was civil and asked me to persuade his

uncle; then he grew abusive, said that I was conspiring to rob him--I and

my "infernal charities"!'

 

He chuckled, but grew grave again.

 

'The situation is mysterious to me,' he said. 'Evidently Carlin has

committed some crime against his lordship, for he is terrified of him!'

 

'You think Mr. Carlin forged your name and secured the money?'

 

The superintendent spread out his arms in despair.

 

'Who else can I suspect?' he asked.

 

Mr. Reeder took the forged letter from his pocket and read it again.

 

'I've just been on the phone to his lordship,' Mr. Lassard went on. 'He

is waiting, of course, to hear your report, and if you have failed to

make this young man confess his guilt, Lord Sellington intends seeing

his nephew tonight and making an appeal to him. I can hardly believe

that Mr. Carlin could have done this wicked thing, though the

circumstances seem very suspicious. Have you seen him, Mr. Reeder?'

 

'I have seen him,' said Mr. Reeder shortly. 'Oh, yes, I have seen him!'

 

Mr. Arthur Lassard was scrutinising his face as though he were trying to

read the conclusion which the detective had reached, but Mr. Reeder's

face was notoriously expressionless.

 

He offered a limp hand and went back to the Under-Secretary's house. The

interview was short and on the whole disagreeable.

 

'I never dreamt he would confess to you,' said Lord Sellington with

ill-disguised contempt. 'Harry needs somebody to frighten him, and, my

God! I'm the man to do it! I'm seeing him to-night.'

 

A fit of coughing stopped him and he gulped savagely from a little

medicine bottle that stood on his desk.

 

'I'll see him to-night,' he gasped, 'and I'll tell him what I intend

doing! I've spared him hitherto because of his relationship and because

he inherits the title. But I'm through. Every cent I have goes to

charity. I'm good for twenty years yet, but every penny--'

 

He stopped. He was a man who never disguised his emotion, and Mr.

Reeder, who understood men, saw the struggle that was going on in

Sellington's mind.

 

'He says he hasn't had a chance. I may have treated him unfairly--we

shall see.' He waved the detective from his office as though he were

dismissing a strange dog that had intruded upon his privacy, and Mr.

Reeder went out reluctantly, for he had something to tell his lordship.

 

It was peculiar to him that, in his more secretive moments, he sought

the privacy of his old-fashioned study in Brockley Road. For two hours

he sat at his desk calling a succession of numbers--and curiously enough,

the gentlemen to whom he spoke were bookmakers. Most of them he knew. In

the days when he was the greatest expert in the world on forged currency

notes, he had been brought into contact with a class which is often the

innocent medium by which the forger distributed his handicraft--and more

often the instrument of his detection.

 

It was a Friday, a day on which most of the principals were in their

offices till a late hour. At eight o'clock he finished, wrote a note

and, phoning for a messenger, sent his letter on its fateful errand.

 

He spent the rest of the evening musing on past experiences and in

refreshing his memory from the thin scrap-books which filled two shelves

in his study.

 

What happened elsewhere that evening can best be told in the plain

language of the witness-box. Lord Sellington had gone home after his

interview with Mr. Reeder suffering from a feverish cold, and was

disposed, according to the evidence of his secretary, to put off the

interview which he had arranged with his nephew. A telephone message had

been sent through to Mr. Carlin's hotel, but he was out. Until nine

o'clock his lordship was busy with the affairs of his numerous

charities, Mr. Lassard being in attendance. Lord Sellington was working

in a small study which opened from his bedroom.

 

At a quarter-past nine Carlin arrived and was shown upstairs by the

butler, who subsequently stated that he heard voices raised in anger.

Mr. Carlin came downstairs and was shown out as the clock struck

half-past nine, and a few minutes later the bell rang for Lord

Sellington's valet, who went up to assist his master to bed.

 

At half-past seven the next morning, the valet, who slept in an

adjoining apartment, went into his master's room to take him a cup of

tea. He found his employer lying face downward on the floor; he was

dead, and had been dead for some hours. There was no sign of wounds, and

at first glance it looked as though this man of sixty had collapsed in

the night. But there were circumstances which pointed to some unusual

happening. In Lord Sellington's bedroom was a small steel wall-safe, and

the first thing the valet noticed was that this was open, papers were

lying on the floor, and that in the grate was a heap of paper which,

except for one corner, was entirely burnt.

 

The valet telephoned immediately for the doctor and for the police, and

from that moment the case went out of Mr. Reeder's able hands.

 

Later that morning he reported briefly to his superior the result of his

inquiries.

 

'Murder, I am afraid,' he said sadly. 'The Home Office pathologist is

perfectly certain that it is a case of aconitine poisoning. The paper in

the hearth has been photographed, and there is no doubt whatever that

the burnt document is the will by which Lord Sellington left all his

property to various charitable institutions.'

 

He paused here.

 

'Well?' asked his chief, 'what does that mean?'

 

Mr. Reeder coughed.

 

'It means that if this will cannot be proved, and I doubt whether it

can, his lordship died intestate. The property goes with the title--'

 

'To Carlin?' asked the startled Prosecutor.

 

Mr. Reeder nodded.

 

'There were other things burnt; four small oblong slips of paper, which

had evidently been fastened together by a pin. These are quite

indecipherable.' He sighed again. The Public Prosecutor looked up.

 

'You haven't mentioned the letter that arrived by district messenger

after Lord Sellington had retired for the night.'

 

Mr. Reeder rubbed his chin.

 

'No, I didn't mention that,' he said reluctantly.

 

'Has it been found?'

 

Mr. Reeder hesitated.

 

'I don't know. I rather think that it has not been,' he said.

 

'Would it throw any light upon the crime, do you think?'

 

Mr. Reeder scratched his chin with some sign of embarrassment.

 

'I should think it might,' he said. 'Will you excuse me, sir? Inspector

Salter is waiting for me.' And he was out of the room before the

Prosecutor could frame any further inquiry.

 

Inspector Salter was striding impatiently up and down the little room

when Mr. Reeder came back. They left the building together. The car that

was waiting for them brought them to Jermyn Street in a few minutes.

Outside the flat three plain-clothes men were waiting, evidently for the

arrival of their chief, and the Inspector passed into the building,

followed closely by Mr. Reeder. They were half-way up the stairs when

Reeder asked:

 

'Does Carlin know you?'

 

'He ought to,' was the grim reply. 'I did my best to get him penal

servitude before he skipped from England.'

 

'Humph!' said Mr. Reeder. 'I'm sorry he knows you.'

 

'Why?' The Inspector stopped on the stairs to ask the question.

 

'Because he saw us getting out of the cab. I caught sight of his face,

and--'

 

He stopped suddenly. The sound of a shot thundered through the house,

and in another second the Inspector was racing up the stairs two at a

time and had burst into the suite which Carlin occupied.

 

A glimpse of the prostrate figure told them they were too late. The

Inspector bent over the dead man.

 

'That has saved the country the cost of a murder trial,' he said.

 

'I think not,' said Mr. Reeder gently, and explained his reasons.

 

Half an hour later, as Mr. Lassard walked out of his office, a detective

tapped him on the shoulder.

 

'Your name is Eiter,' he said, 'and I want you for murder.'

 

'It was a very simple case really, sir,' explained Mr. Reeder to his

chief. 'Eiter, of course, was known to me personally, but I remembered

especially that he could not spell the word "able," and I recognised

this peculiarity in our friend the moment I saw the letter which he

wrote to his patron asking for the money. It was Eiter himself who drew

the five thousand pounds; of that I am convinced. The man is, and always

has been, an inveterate gambler, and I did not have to make many

inquiries before I discovered that he was owing a large sum of money and

that one bookmaker had threatened to bring him before Tattersall's

Committee unless he paid. That would have meant the end of Mr. Lassard,

the philanthropic custodian of children. Which, by the way, was always

Eiter's role. He ran bogus charitable societies--it is extraordinarily

easy to find dupes who are willing to subscribe for philanthropic

objects. Many years ago, when I was a young man, I was instrumental in

getting him seven years. I'd lost sight of him since then until I saw

the letter he sent to Lord Sellington. Unfortunately for him, one line

ran: "I shall be glad if you are abel to let my messenger have the

money"--and he spelt "able" in the Eiter way. I called on him and made

sure. And then I wrote to his lordship, who apparently did not open the

letter till late that night.

 

'Eiter had called on him earlier in the evening and had had a long talk

with him. I only surmise that Lord Sellington had expressed a doubt as

to whether he ought to leave his nephew penniless, scoundrel though he

was; and Eiter was terrified that his scheme for getting possession of

the old man's money was in danger of failing. Moreover, my appearance in

the case had scared him. He decided to kill Lord Sellington that night,

took aconitine with him to the house and introduced it into the

medicine, a bottle of which always stood on Sellington's desk. Whether

the old man destroyed the will which disinherited his nephew before he

discovered he had been poisoned, or whether he did it after, we shall

never know. When I had satisfied myself that Lassard was Eiter, I sent a

letter by special messenger to Stratford Place--'

 

'That was the letter delivered by special messenger?'

 

Mr. Reeder nodded.

 

'It is possible that Sellington was already under the influence of the

drug when he burnt the will, and burnt too the four bills which Carlin

had forged and which the old man had held over his head as a threat.

Carlin may have known his uncle was dead; he certainly recognised the

Inspector when he stepped out of the cab, and, thinking he was to be

arrested for forgery, shot himself.'

 

Mr. Reeder pursed his lips and his melancholy face grew longer.

 

'I wish I had never known Mrs. Carlin--my acquaintance with her

introduces that element of coincidence which is permissible in stories

but is so distressing in actual life. It shakes one's confidence in the

logic of things.'